OVERBURY, Sir Thomas

Thomas Overbury was the murder victim in a plot that scandalized the English royal court and a writer from the same circles as Ben Jonson* and John Web­ster.* Overbury's poem "The Wife" enjoyed great popularity in Stuart England.
Born in 1581 in Warwickshire to Sir Nicholas Overbury and his wife Mary, he received the bachelor of arts at Queen's College, Oxford (1598), and studied law at the Middle Temple. In 1601 he befriended Robert Carr, later James I's* favorite (1607-14), viscount of Rochester (1611), and earl of Somerset (1613). Overbury profited thereby, being appointed sewer to the king and being knighted in 1608. During Rochester's affair with Frances Howard, Overbury wrote letters and poems for him to give her. However, when she sought to divorce the earl of Essex and Rochester planned to marry her, Overbury, afraid of being dis­placed, objected, antagonizing Rochester, the Howards, the king, and Queen Anne (one historian has suggested that Overbury and Rochester were lovers). Frances's great-uncle, the earl of Northampton, urged James to offer Overbury a diplomatic post overseas, and the king, jealous of his influence over Rochester, agreed. Overbury's refusal of the position landed him in the Tower of London on 26 April 1613. That is the traditional account; however, it has been argued that Overbury was incarcerated because his Protestant views on foreign policy fell afoul of the pro-Spanish faction at court. Again, tradition has it (probably correctly) that Frances instigated a scheme whereby Overbury was gradually poisoned, dying on 15 September, though some have sought to exonerate her or even implicate Overbury. Two years later, with George Villiers ascendant at court, Somerset and his new bride were condemned for Overbury's murder in a trial prosecuted by Sir Francis Bacon,* but though several lesser plotters were executed, the pair were merely imprisoned and in 1621 exiled from court. It was perhaps poetic justice that their marriage was unhappy.
Overbury's literary reputation may have benefited from his notorious death, but Jonson thought him responsible for enhancing the Jacobean court's appre­ciation of the arts. According to Jonson, Overbury wrote "The Wife" because of his infatuation with the countess of Rutland (Sir Philip Sidney's* daughter), a matter that cost Overbury Jonson's friendship, though others claim that he wrote it to dissuade Rochester from marrying Frances. Initially published in 1613, it went through many editions and inspired numerous imitations, including Jonson's poem "The Husband" (1614). Overbury authored other poems; dozens of character sketches ranging from "A Wise Man" and "A Good Woman" to "A Golden Asse" and "A Very Whore"; and "Observations upon the XVII Provinces (the Netherlands) As They Stood A.D. 1609." His death inspired works by Jonson, Webster, and others and influenced Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.
C. Dunning, "The Fall of Sir Thomas Overbury and the Embassy to Russia in 1613," Sixteenth Century Journal 22, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 695-704.
A. Somerset, Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court ofJames I, 1997.
William B. Robison

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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